This Saturday at 8.30pm the Sinn Féin ard fheis will go live on RTÉ from the RDS. Gerry Adams will share his intentions and timeline for stepping down as party leader, writes Gerard Howlin.
He may or may not contest the next election in Louth. It will be, as these things are, the beginning of the end of an era.
In the case of Adams and Sinn Féin, it is more appropriate, however, to speak of epoch. Some have said for a long time, that he is holding Sinn Féin back. I disagree. The truth closer to the fact is that he may be holding it together. This is especially so since the death of Martin McGuinness. There is no split in sight, but there are multiple challenges pulling in different directions. On Sunday morning Sinn Féin will awaken to the reality of a non-charismatic movement, adjusting to the departure of a charismatic leader. It is uncharted territory.
I don’t think Adams is as much clinging on these last few years as he is trapped by relative success, and a fundamental problem about succession. Longevity is one measure of it. He enjoys longer tenure than any leader in nationalist Ireland since de Valera. In a sense, like de Valera, he is blighted by self-enforced continuance as his own efficacy wanes. Parnell, Pearse, Collins and even McGuinness all lived briefly enough to enjoy the claim that they were taken before their time. But in politics, time is the ultimate enemy. Moving ahead of it to the end is a rare achievement.
Issues of personnel, policy and surrounding culture will all challenge Sinn Féin. This issue of personnel is not the lack of a potential successor. There are several. It is whether any from the next, and by definition non-charismatic generation, can hold together a very
No political party approaches Sinn Féin’s self-imposed discipline. This partly arises from its militaristic past. It is also one, which when applied to a burgeoning organisation North and South, served well so far. You may never have taken part in the struggle, but you could imitate the attributes of those who did. Ultimately, that won’t be sustainable.
Last Sunday, one party TD Peadar Tóibín criticised what he considers is the pro-choice bias of the Oireachtas committee examining abortion. He was promptly rounded on by his own. I took his dissension as a redeeming feature, signalling some plurality in what publicly is a very monotone party. It will be interesting to see how Tóibín fares this weekend. It is not that the party lacks debate. It is that there are a series of internal spaces, one usually firmly enclosed within the other, where it takes place. Election to parliamentary office does not equate to equivalent status therein. Remember, in the history of the official IRA, ultimately that was the final breaking point between its political wing, the Workers Party and those of its elected TDs who subsequently became Democratic Left. In a sense what was Sinn Féin before Adams, could never survive the apostasy of taking seats in partitionist parliaments.
With election comes the careerism and egotism of parliamentary politics. Party management across two jurisdictions, while attempting generational change and dealing with cultural change, will be daunting for Adams’s successor.
The challenge of moving on Sinn Féin successfully and intact goes beyond personnel. There is the deeper issue of what Sinn Féin is. The party Adams joined, and initially led, was small. It was as much a culture of armed force republicanism passed clandestinely through small groups of people, as any sort of a political party.
That pre-existing culture prior to 1969-70 was reinforced by the conflict which followed. There is a layer of people near Adams’s own age at the centre of Sinn Féin now. Few are household names. All like him, must of necessity fade away. The claim made for those in their 40s now is that they were there at the end of the conflict. They have overlapped for a much longer time since, with those who are truly
The emphasis in Sinn Féin on commemoration is for a purpose. It is about prolonging authenticity and passing it on. But time marches on even more insistently. It, and participation in government brings the effect of neutralisation. Paradoxically their political opponents, help to keep the Sinn Féin flame alive internally, with regular top-ups of rhetorical kerosene.
Over what timeline, and in what manner, Gerry Adams goes is to be revealed. What he will leave intact besides a remarkable record of survival, adaptation and retelling of his own story, is a fundamental contradiction. Is Sinn Féin nationalist, republican or radical left. It would say all three. Those who are on its left say it is essentially a nationalist party with left policies.
The point is that it will compromise as needs be to further its nationalist agenda, which it will interpret as coterminous with its own political interest. This is essentially its recent history. Its identification with Syriza in Greece is a case in point. Syriza a Marxist party, in the government of an EU member state, simply couldn’t walk the walk, and buckled.
Latterly, Sinn Féin has embraced Catalan nationalism, and this will be paraded prominently next weekend. But the meaning of nationalism has changed utterly. It is the prerogative of Farage and Trump. An effective modern politics can no longer be based on land, language, nation and religion. Nowhere is that more evident than in Catalonia. Sinn Féin has itself eschewed religion. Language has never recovered as an Irish signifier. Purely territorial nationalism may have made sense — literally on the ground — in Northern Ireland. But it is senseless elsewhere. The Irish story, over the same timeline as the peace process, changed from one of emigration to immigration. Sinn Féin, to its credit, played a role inhibiting any rise in xenophobia. But the remains of a 19th-century nationalism will not replay successfully in the 21st century. Localism, not nationalism, is the antidote to globalism.
Leading on after a charismatic leader is an endeavour seldom marked by success. There are
too many comparisons. Habits of loyalty to older, veteran leaders, don’t transfer easily to contemporaries. This is not simply a changing of the guard. It is a change of an
entire order and culture.
A new leader will be caught between the past and the present. They will have to navigate inherited politics of protest, in a recovering economy. Irish economic recoveries, of course, can disappear. But if it doesn’t the message must adapt. If it adapts, is it simply neutralised? What Gerry Adams gave Sinn Féin is indelible identity. For many — and to be frank I include myself — that identity was largely negative. It’s projecting force, repelling.
But without him, and after the death of Martin McGuinness, what will distinguish Sinn Féin 10 or even five years from now?
In politics, time is the ultimate enemy. Moving ahead of it to the end is a rare achievement
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